• July 23, 2014

Staying put

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Posted: Sunday, April 7, 2013 4:30 am | Updated: 9:24 pm, Sat Aug 3, 2013.

Downtown Killeen means different things to different people. For some, it’s a rundown area whose best days are behind it.

Optimists look at all of the construction downtown and see a bright, revitalized future for the area.

For many entrepreneurs, downtown Killeen represents their small-business hopes and dreams.

Perhaps nobody encapsulates investment in downtown commerce better than Billy Mills. His father, T.J. Mills, opened Modern TV & Appliance on East Avenue C in 1957.

After a stint as a defensive coordinator for the Baylor University football program in the 1970s, Billy Mills started working at the store in 1983. He has been running the store since his father died five years ago.

“Business is excellent,” Mills said. “People are still being good to us. We belong to a buying group that allows us to compete with the big boys, and we don’t have to answer to corporate (offices) about our prices.”

Over the years, Mills said he has heard he needs to relocate to U.S. Highway 190 to make it, but Mills believes such a move is fool’s gold.

“I could move, but when you do the math and look at the expenses, I would have to do about three times as much business to make the same money,” he said.

Mills is positive about downtown Killeen’s future, considering his storefront is currently torn up by construction.

“When it’s all said and done, it’s going to look very nice, and I think it will help business,” Mills said.

Optimism like Mills’ can be found in small businesses across downtown. Vavette Blevins, a former dentist, current semi-pro race car driver and owner of a downtown bakery, Works of Art Cakes, on North 10th Street, is one such entrepreneur.

Defends downtown

Blevins has been operating her bakery downtown for six years. She said the construction has not impacted her business much because she depends on referrals. But she does think downtown’s “dangerous” image makes some customers hesitate about visiting her store.

“Downtown has a bad reputation,” she said. “Everyone says, ‘10th Street! I’ll be mugged!’ I hear that all the time, but I have never seen anything like that happen. People have this misconception that rampant crime and craziness are going on here all the time. That’s not true. I haven’t had a problem in six years. It’s a real misconception.

“The only time I have ever had to call the police was on a customer,” she added.

Blevins said she chose downtown because she is a small-town person, and in a small town, people build their businesses downtown.

“Here in downtown, it is still a small town,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody. Killeen is growing. Building a business downtown gives you the potential for a large customer base while keeping that small-town feeling.”

Blevins said she is impressed with the city’s initiative to revitalize downtown. Like Mills, Blevins believes it can only make her strong business stronger. She is hoping for increased foot traffic that helps all downtown businesses.

“Three years ago, the area looked much shoddier,” she said. “This beautification thing has small-business owners working harder to keep their storefronts up. Once the area is revamped, I think people will want to pop in and check out and see what all the shops are all about.”

Businessman concerned

Not everybody on North 10th Street is so positive. Sammy Tarabeh, owner of Gyro Stop, said he is not going anywhere, but he is obviously worried about where his business is headed.

Tarabeh said his business is down “30 percent easily” since downtown construction began. Tarabeh said he has been able to make it thanks to an understanding landlord and a loyal clientele. He is optimistic about the foot traffic a revamped downtown could attract, but he is still worried.

“I will have a problem if business stays like this much longer,” Tarabeh said.

Tarabeh said the construction is only part of the problem.

“There is no foot traffic,” he said. “There are not a lot of major businesses to bring customers. The Sprint store next door closed. There is no hospital. No VA (Veterans Affairs office). No nothing. If they ever close the post office, the whole area is dead.”

Tarabeh has run Gyro Stop for 16 years.

“I’m staying no matter what,” Tarabeh said. “My rent is affordable. I have a great landlord. The future really depends on increasing activity.”

Owners hope for

more foot traffic

Other longtime downtown stalwarts are confident there will be more foot traffic once the construction ends.

“The first quarter has been slow, I would say business is down about 15 percent,” said Holly Smith, office manager for optometrist Dr. Austin Ruiz, who has been practicing in downtown Killeen since 1981.

She hopes downtown’s new face will attract a new wave of small businesses to the area.

“It would be nice to see more restaurants and cafes,” she said. “That would help a lot with foot traffic.”

Office Manager Lou Preece has worked at World Finance Corporation on North Eighth Street for 23 years. She said the firm is confident in the city’s plan.

“Once they finish everything, we’re going to remodel our building, too, so I am excited,” she said.

Perhaps nobody needs increased foot traffic more than David Randall, who runs a shoeshine stand inside of Fox Boot & Shoe Repair.

“(The construction) has hurt some,” he said. “It picks up and slows down. But once the construction is done, and the road to the shop isn’t cut off, I think it will get a lot better.”

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